REDEMPTION SONG JULY 8, 2013
At Union Square in New York City, several dozen journalists, many armed with television cameras (the local networks parked their trucks along 14th Street), waited at noon Monday for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer to arrive, shake hands, and try to begin getting the 3,750 valid signatures he needs by Thursday to get on the ballot for comptroller.
I arrived to a couple of journalists comparing Spitzer to—who else?—Anthony Weiner. It’s the obvious comparison: Brash New York personalities with few friends who resigned in the face of sex scandals (though Spitzer’s was surely more serious—prostitutes versus sexts) who are now trying to redeem themselves in city-wide campaigns. The savvy response at the moment is to argue that this is where the similarities end rather than begin. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, who used to cover New York politics, set the conventional wisdom last night shortly after the Spitzer news broke: “Weiner is a talented politician who left Congress with no major legislative accomplishments and everything to prove,” Smith wrote. “Spitzer was a major force in American public life for eight years despite having no particular talent for politics.”
But either way, at varying levels and to varying extents, Weiner and Spitzer face the same problem: Will New York voters forgive them their trespasses? Hank Sheinkopf offered some thoughts while we waited for Spitzer to arrive. Sheinkopf is one of city reporters’ favorite quotes, a loquacious, savvy consultant (and, on the side, rabbi) with no apparent dog in this fight, though he worked for Spitzer years ago and is now onboard Bill Thompson’s mayoral campaign. He wore a nifty hat and a navy suit, and indeed one feels it’s the particularly crazy days of New York politics that he looks forward to the most. What brought you down here? I inquired. “This was just here,” he shrugged. Oh, please. “I was walking! I was going to the subway!”
The essential question, Sheinkopf told me, is: “Has enough time passed for voters who once thought Eliot Spitzer was a savior that they can think of him that way again?” A tricky nuance here is that Spitzer’s brief tenure as governor was undistinguished at best; mainly it was marred by stalemate, dysfunction, and even a touch of scandal. The Spitzer-as-savior days—which were very real—date back to his eight-year stint as attorney general, from 1999 through 2006.
Still, Sheinkopf was optimistic. “The redemption argument has worked very well in American politics, New York politics especially,” he said. The model for the kind of race Spitzer will likely run, he predicted, is Mayor John Lindsay’s 1969 re-election campaign. Lindsay, a moderate Republican and also former congressman, had an unhappy first term—among other things, there was an actual blizzard for which Lindsay was accused of insufficiently preparing the city—and lost the Republican primary. Yet he ran on an explicit redemption theme: One quote went, “I guessed wrong on the weather before the city's biggest snowfall last winter. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets, and that was no mistake.” Running on the Liberal Party ticket in the general election, he ended up earning just more than 40 percent of the vote, enough of a plurality to secure a second term.1
So for example, Reb Hank offered, Spitzer could say, “I made a horrendous mistake in my personal life. I didn’t in taking on Wall Street.” Spitzer’s opponent, Scott Stringer, meanwhile, will have no choice but to make the race a referendum on Spitzer. “Today,” Sheinkopf concluded, “Spitzer has to be given the edge.”
A couple young people, one with a green ballot-signature form, milled around collecting autographs and refusing to talk to press. And when Spitzer arrived, he was treated to a massive scrum and gave an up-close-and-personal theater-in-the-round performance. He wore a navy pinstripe suit, a white shirt, and a conservative tie, perfectly in keeping with the upper Fifth Avenue address listed as his residence on the ballot-signature form. (Spitzer has always been wealthy; his father is a major real-estate player.) After a bit of heckling—“Eliot, what’s the going rate for a hooker? Baba booey Howard Stern’s penis!” (seriously)—he took questions from reporters and onlookers for about 20 minutes.
It looks like Spitzer is following the Lindsay playbook. “Spitzer Rejoins Politics, Asking Forgiveness” read the headline of the New York Times article that broke the story last night. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness, I’m asking for it,” he said. On Monday, to my hearing (which was rarely good—there were seriously a ton of reporters), he parried personal-life questions and talked up the campaign for a “job well suited to the skills I’ve demonstrated.” He never stopped smiling, even as sweat literally dripped onto his suit. He eagerly took up the populist themes that were his well before the financial meltdown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren made them cool, telling one questioner, “When Wall Street is crying ‘class warfare,’ we’re in Alice in Wonderland.”
John Scott, “a constituent,” had a question for the candidate, and shouted from the back of the scrum, “Gov. Spitzer!”
A woman next to him noted, “He’s not the governor anymore.”
“It’s called—uh—courtesy,” Scott replied.